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Sailrace accident kills one in California

The sailing community is mourning the third fatal sailracing accident in less than a year after a Columbia Carbon 32 named Uncontrollable Urge, apparently adrift with a failed rudder, broke apart last Friday in 8-foot surf on the rocky coast of California’s San Clemente Island.

After failing to secure an anchor, the six crewmembers abandoned ship to a life raft. Five were rescued, but California sailor Craig Williams, 36, a husband and father, died in the accident.

“All of us at US Sailing — our staff, board of directors and volunteers — are deeply saddened by this event and are mourning the loss of life. Our thoughts and prayers go out to their families and friends as they navigate through these very difficult times,” US Sailing executive director Jack Gierhart wrote in a posting at the website of the sport’s U.S. governing body.

“While we cannot affect the past, we will look to learn from this tragedy to help sailors in the future. At US Sailing, our commitment to safety at sea is paramount. We will continue to champion the many positive lessons and opportunities that sailing offers and strive to ensure sailing remains as safe as possible.”

The crew of Uncontrollable Urge had been competing in the fourth annual two-day Islands Race, a 139-nautical-mile competition from the Long Beach area to the San Diego area.

The crew issued a mayday call and activated the DSC feature on their VHF marine radio about 9:26 p.m. Friday after the sailboat’s rudder failed and they began drifting toward San Clemente Island, according to a Coast Guard press release.

The crew initially said they did not need help and declined assistance from the Coast Guard and others in the race. The sailors requested assistance from a commercial salvage company. The Coast Guard reported 8-foot swells and 20- to 25-knot winds, with a small craft advisory in effect.

The sailors attempted to anchor the vessel shortly after 11 p.m., but the anchor would not catch and the vessel drifted closer to the island. An MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew launched from Coast Guard Sector San Diego and the cutter Edisto was diverted to the scene.

The Coast Guard said the boat entered the surf line and was broken apart by the waves, forcing the crew to abandon it. The helicopter crew rescued five of the sailors and brought them to the Coast Guard station, where emergency medical personnel took them to a local hospital.
Williams was pulled unresponsive from the water.

Local news reports have provided daily coverage of the loss to the Southern California sailing community, including this report by NBC 7 in San Diego.

This latest West Coast sailing tragedy follows the April 14, 2012, deaths of five crewmembers aboard a Sydney 38 named Low Speed Chase after it was rolled in breaking seas off the Southeast Farallon Islands during the Full Crew Farallones Race; two weeks later, on April 28, the four-person crew aboard the Hunter 376 named Aegean died after a hard grounding on North Coronado Island in the Newport-to-Ensenada Race.

With nine sailors dead before the start of 2012 summer sailing, the Coast Guard suspended offshore racing in the San Francisco area, pending the completion of a US Sailing inquiry into the Low Speed Chase accident, Soundings reported in its August 2012 issue.

A US Sailing independent review panel found that Low Speed Chase capsized and crashed onto the rocks because it sailed too close to the lee shore in shoal water — a failure of seamanship, the panel concluded. Click here for the panel’s full report.

A second US Sailing review panel found that a key element of the Aegean accident was probably an “inadequate lookout” and that the vessel likely inadvertently motored beyond a waypoint set before North Coronado Island. Click here for the panel’s full report.

Both panels offered numerous safety recommendations.

— Rich Armstrong